Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 25, 2003 10:25 pm 
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Fudged finale

Patrice Leconte's L'Homme du Train (The Man on the Train) is an odd, compelling little film, a bit of a teaser because it has one of those dual endings, 'It could happen this way, or it could happen that way.' The heart of it is a character study of two aging men, the younger, the grim looking, rakish Milan (Johnny Hallyday) new in town just off a train and taken in by a tall older gentleman, M. Manesquier, a retired schoolteacher in comfortable circumstances whose specialty was poetry. For a short time they share the big, elegant, crowded house Manessier inherited from his mother. The pall cast by the grimness of the town is a third character in the piece.

Johnny Hallyday is that famous French rock-n-roll sort of singer with the ice-blue eyes who still fills big halls and at 59 still has a sexy edge, like Keith Richards. Manesquier is played by Jean Rochefort, veteran of many roles but lately most known abroad for being cast as Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam's doomed effort. Rochefort is tall, suave, but vaguely comic in a Tati-esque and indeed Quixotic way. The contrast between the two men speaks for itself, and Milan in fact rarely even bothers to speak, while Manesquier rambles on pleasantly about anything and everything from his early masturbation habits to the annoying mannerisms of the bread shop clerk.

"Were you a good teacher?" Milan asks. "In thirty years I didn't molest a single pupil," the old fellow answers: a remark that stuns rather than amuses.

The film proceeds by little incidents. A sweet but stupid boy comes to be tutored in poetry; Manesquier's bravery in confronting a boorish bistro patron is rewarded when he turns out to be a former student. "I still read a little poetry, thanks to you," the loudmouth says, having recited lines he remembers from 1982. It comes out that the older man is going in for a heart operation on Saturday morning, and the younger is in town to rob a bank at the same hour. Manesquier tries on Milan's tassled leather jacket, gives him a pair of slippers, gets a haricut like his. Milan, who's been around and survived some wild moments, plainly envies the teacher's comfortable, peaceful existence of welcoming the occasional visitor, doing jigsaw puzzles and playing the piano. In exchange for the slippers, Manessier requests and gets a lesson in firing pistols.

There are promises of excitement. The vaguely planned robbery at least offers the menace of ugly cohorts. A suspenseful walk into his property suggests Manesquier is being robbed: it's only the gardener.

Fourteen years separate the men but both are alone and aware of growing old without attachments or hope. An odd note is Manesquier's mistress, whom Milan scolds for chattering about her child: "He wants tenderness and sex, not news of your brat." The old man seems too amiable and sexless to maintain a mistress. (Nor is there a scintilla of sexuality between the two men.) Both hesitate about their scary rendezvous with destiny: Milan doesn't guarantee his quirky accomplices that he'll show up for the heist and Manesquier balks at going in for the operation and quarrels with his prim sister when she comes to help him pack for the hospital. They're both stalling, as if lingering and chatting together in the comfy old house was the last good thing they'll ever have.

They were right: in the event, both die. Milan is gunned down by a mass of snipers (who could have tipped them off?) Manesquier's heart stops in the early stages of the triple bypass. But then the film shows us their eyes peeking out, and slips to an alternative, where the two men change places: the older one goes off on the train, and the younger pockets the housekeys -- unnecessary anyway, since neither the gate nor the front door are ever locked. In fact, Leconte's heart isn't in his story: there are a number of inconsistencies in the telling of it, and all he really cares about is the mystery of the bank robber, the garrulous vacuity of the retired teacher, and the moments of poetry and nostalgia that link them together. The fact that they are both de facto retirees and dead men makes the substance of the story vanish into thin air. It had its moments. A surprise encounter is always a good way to begin. But a fudged finale is a bad way to end.

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